Accountability. It’s a strikingly simple concept that somehow has proven difficult to execute. Yet, it’s still extraordinarily important for everyday functionality. Owning up to something is like replacing the toilet paper in the bathroom – if you don’t do it soon, it’s gonna get a lot worse. But people find it more convenient to conjure up reasons why they aren’t to blame. If it seems silly, that’s because it is. In this day and age, we find a lack of accountability incredibly prevalent. When the NBA Finals ended this year, all eyes were on the star of the losing Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star LeBron James. The man nearly single-handedly dragged his team through the entire regular season and post-season to come to the finals only to get completely obliterated by the Golden State Warriors in four games. At the press conference, reporters were scrambling for answers and there were a ton that he could have given: his team was lacking the kind of support structure he needs, there were plenty of missed shot opportunities, the other team is so darn good, one of his team members was asleep at the wheel, and on and on. One of the reasons he gave? He was playing with a broken hand. What? Come on man! What kind of malarky is that? Despite him giving a lot of what he (and the rest of the team) had, they lost. And there can’t be any ifs ands or buts about it. And yet there had to be. “But my hand was broken.” It’s a way of invalidating an experience. The problem becomes then: how are we supposed to validate an experience? If that happened after every finals, how is any victory legit? This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t as prevalent as it seems to be nowadays. Instead of fessing up and taking responsibility, it’s much easier to play the blame game. Sadly, the words I’m Sorry became akin to an ancient incantation. Which is funny because while watching the highly-anticipated festival darling of this year Hereditary, I felt myself validated in this perspective.
Hereditary is a horror movie from first-time director Ari Aster, which follows the harrowing fallout of a family reeling from the death of a matriarch. It feels like part The Witch, part Rosemary’s Baby and all creepy. It fits fairly nicely in this new horror niche I like to call “Chiller”. It’s not a slasher, gore-oriented monster movie (but it has some elements of that). It’s not a jump-scare-challenge your heart rate movie (though there are some elements of that). It’s not quite a thriller, because it generally is dealing with themes darker than that. But it’s also an elevated horror movie. One where the themes transcend the text and the subtext of the film is rich with metaphor. This doesn’t mean the movie isn’t scary. On the contrary – it is downright freaky. But if you’re looking for sporadic adrenaline spikes from motivation-less villains, then look elsewhere. The main character in the film is Annie, the daughter of the recently deceased matriarch and mother of two very different siblings. She’s a model-decorator, but a less than model mother. Throughout the film, we discover that, like many, she entered into motherhood reluctantly. This can create some issues between her and her kids in the long run, especially with her son, Peter. Peter is a typical, high school casual bro. He smokes weed, goes to parties, has a decent group of friends, and cares pretty little for his family. The rest of the family kind of lets him do his own thing and he makes it clear from the beginning of the film that he’s the least close with his grandmother of all of the family. Which is normal for teenagers, unless you’re his creepy-looking teenage sister seems to suffer from severe paranoia and dark thoughts at all hours of the day. She was something else. Anyway, put this grieving family (plus a kind of boring, standard dad figure) together and you have the makings of a dark family drama.
In order to induce some family bonding, Annie orchestrates her kids going to a party together by pretty much just telling Peter he’s going to take his sister and making him take his sister. As awkward as the entire experience lives up to be, it culminates in yet another tragedy (though, as an audience member, I was fairly apathetic) – this time involving his sister. The family is reeling and the strength of their will is tested all over again. And this – the process by which we deal with such blows is what Aster is interested in. After the initial shock, the blame game sets in between mother and son. Both deflect responsibility when the finger is pointed one another, but both conveniently sit there and stew in their own agony. They both seem like they could be responsible. Annie was the one who organized the expedition and Peter was in charge during the entirety of it. Neither of them, for the sake of their own sanity (I guess), want to take credit for the horrible thing that happened. The irony behind the whole thing is that they aren’t to blame at all. We later discover that every event that we see onscreen is essentially pre-meditated since before we even see the first images pop up on screen. Yet, the one thing that would provide them some semblance of relief is for somebody, for the love of their life, to own up to their actions. Things finally come to a boil when at dinner one night, mother and son finally release their angst for one another, addressing their concern that no one is at fault. This takes us back to LeBron James. Because you see by deflecting responsibility for a loss (or four), you leave a dangling uncertainty which sits and festers. With no solution, no accountability for what has happened, our path to conclusiveness becomes more and more opaque. When you try to nullify a deserved victory by purporting that you aren’t playing at one hundred percent, as LeBron did, you set a sour precedent. Just think: what if everyone were to take that approach? After a while victories would be meaningless. There’s no conclusion, no ending, no resolve. And without resolve, there’s no way to move on or break the cycle. In the world of Hereditary, this is the true problem.
After an unresolved battle at the dinner table, things only get worse for Annie and Peter. Slowly, the evil that they have been attempting to avoid envelops their entire existence. Without going into any particular spoilers, I can say this: it’s not a happy ending. And when the credits roll, there is a part of you left wondering whether or not things would have been different should one of them have owned up to the tragedy. Could a simple act of accountability have changed the entire outcome of the film? But then again, without it, Aster’s message might not be so clear. The point he’s trying to so desperately (and deservedly) make is that life has consequences, even for inaction. Without owning up to something you’ve done, without taking responsibility for your actions, there is a vacuum of morality. If a wound is never properly dressed, it will not heal correctly. That is exactly the fate that befalls Peter and Annie. Hidden through a supernatural guise, they’re left to pay for a mistake their family has evidently made for generations. The title of the film refers to a specific supernatural occurrence that affects the family, but in a much more pointed commentary, one may guess that the title is more aptly a reference to a family in which no one is willing to confront guilt, so much so that the deflection is inheritable. This is best exemplified when Annie, doing her best to manage her grief, goes to a community group therapy session. She finds the whole process relatively unhelpful and mentions how she’s tried this message a couple of times before. But after driving to a session around the time of her dinner-table fight, she finds herself unable to go in. Unsure of how to come face-to-face with her role in the matter. And the consequences for her not going in really prove to be costly. As she attempts to drive away, she’s stopped by an old woman who tries to sympathize with her, whilst really being a catalyst for a lot of messed up, supernatural shit. And none to that should really come as a surprise because Aster lays out all those breadcrumbs from the opening scene of the film onward. That’s the horror part of this psychological horror film and, admittedly, it’s not entirely necessary. Still, it makes for a good popcorn viewing and validates the horror fans out there who wanted something like this.
Speaking of films like this: The Witch. The horror film from almost three years ago about a young family making their homestead in colonial America shares many common themes with Aster’s Hereditary. For one thing, they both fall within what I would call the chiller subgenre in theme and in tone. They tend to be quiet films that, while scary in concept, don’t rely on cheap jump scares to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. In both films, family is used as a platform for metaphor. In The Witch, a young colonial family struggles to avoid paranoia while living in the deep Massachusetts wilderness, but ultimately succumb to unresolved issues which have haunted them in their past. In The Witch, some horrible tragedies (including the loss of a child) befall the family and they’re left to search for reasons why. The horrific truth in the movie is that death is sometimes just apart of life. It’s a present and powerful force in the world, but it’s not always attributable to someone. Sometimes people die and that’s life. But in a world where logic and reason pervade our daily existence (even amongst puritan outcasts), they just died wasn’t a good enough answer. It leaves more to be desired and unfortunately, in that void, there is only guilt and blame for filling. And The Witch uses this as the impetus for it’s occult storylines, whereupon paranoia ultimately manifests itself through it’s own destructive forces. Both horror flicks understand that sometimes the aftermath of a tragedy is far worse than the initial tragedy itself.
And thus we find the importance of accountability. In an era where everything you hear can be misconstrued or framed from a particular angle to elicit a particular response, we’ve come to know how important it is to seek and acknowledge the truth. Without some kind of moral verification system, we’re left with loose ends and uncertainty. Uncertainty breeds chaos. It’s exactly what happens when you have simulated users providing reviews which end up fabricating an image of a film. It’s what happens when your grandfather’s personal info is stolen after he just enters a “free” Facebook campaign to win an Applebee’s gift card. It’s what happens when rumors manifest upon themselves and people can be legitimately convinced a someone is running a pedophile ring out of a pizza shop. The desire for accountability the whole reason cryptocurrency is hitting it’s stride as of late. The saddest part of the whole darn thing is that it is a very simple fix. Someone, somewhere has an account of what’s happening. But unless confronted, that monstrous guilt will continue from generation to generation – almost as if it’s hereditary.